Repent or Perish
1 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."
6 Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?'
8 " 'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.' "
I think we all have songs that we are slightly embarrassed to admit that we like because they’re just not cool in the eyes of others. As I sit here and type this, I am listening to one of my favorite songs that would fall in that category. The song is none other than “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot. The song is written about a boat that sank in a terrible storm and killed all 29 people on board, and it happened not too awfully far from where I live. I love that song and it always causes me to ponder about our lives and how quickly they can come to an end. This morning though, as I listened to this song and read this passage in Luke one more time, my thoughts turned to the Titanic. Here was a ship that was the wonder of its day. People were on board going around enjoying some of the greatest luxuries that could be offered at that time, and were completely unaware that they were hurtling towards their own impending deaths. The captain of the ship had made the decision to try to impress everyone in the world with how fast this brand new ship was by arriving at port a day early, so he continued to go as fast as they could even though they were cutting through iceberg infested waters. The simple fact was that the leader of that ship had made a decision and everyone on that ship was going to die. If they stayed on that ship, they were going to sink and die because the only place the Titanic was heading was the bottom of the ocean. Of course no one knew that but what if they had? What if someone had come and warned them days before the crash that this was the fate of the ship and everyone on it? What would we think then of those who dismissed those warnings and stayed?
We often think of Jesus’ long and intentional march towards Jerusalem and his own death as a strangely wonderful thing, and for us it is a wonderful thing in many ways. But it is easy to forget that this was also a national tragedy. It was the time when God’s long awaited promise to return to his people was being fulfilled. Yet, the very people who were waiting for his return failed to see that this was it. Jesus’ march towards Jerusalem was the return of YHWH (the personal name for God in the Old Testament as it was revealed to the nation of Israel) to Zion. This was an incredibly wonderful event for those that embraced Jesus. But it was incredibly tragic for the nation of Israel that was on the verge of rejecting Jesus. He and his followers were furiously trying to warn them that the nation of Israel was sinking fast and they needed to get on the lifeboat that Jesus was offering. It was such a tragic scene that when Jesus stands with Jerusalem in his sights, he feels nothing but anguish over the whole situation and the fate of the people that were rejecting their own God (Lk. 13:34-35).
Many commentators over the years have reduced verses 1-5 to being nothing more than a moral warning from Jesus concerning those who think that only evil meet bad ends in the present age. Jesus was, they argue, trying to correct the perception that only bad things happen to bad people while good things happen to good people. Although the principles of that argument are certainly contained within these sayings of Jesus, it would be, I believe, a mistake to simply limit Jesus’ words to just that. Not to mention, to do so is to not really consider the context of this passage and the larger context of Luke 9-19. That Jesus is speaking of things larger than just the individual is made clear by Jesus’ parable in verses 6-7, which clearly have to do with Israel.
The topic brought up to Jesus concerning the Galileans is deeply ironic when we consider that Jesus and his band of Galileans are themselves on the road to Jerusalem. The topic of the Galileans, though, concerned a recent event in which a group of Galileans were on pilgrimage to offer sacrifices at the Temple and were slaughtered at the orders of Pilate, presumably for suspicion of starting a rebellion or riot of some kind against the authorities. Jesus had been speaking of the judgment that would come upon those who spurned his call to abandon the desire to join the nationalistic fervor and desire to defeat Rome and expel them from the land of Israel and to embrace the way of the kingdom of God which called for a defeat of the true enemies of sin and death rather than Rome. In light of this horrible end for the Galileans, would Jesus continue to Jerusalem? Was this a sign that those Galilean pilgrims were the ones that Jesus had spoken of? Were they being judged for rejecting Jesus’ teaching and embracing their own way? Were they being punished by God for continuing along the path of rebellion and violence?
Jesus’ answer is pointed. The problem was not that they were any worse than any other Galilean, or any other Jew for that matter. The problem was not that they had distinguished themselves within Israel as being particularly worthy of God’s wrath. The real problem was that all of Israel was heading down the path of confrontation with Rome, a confrontation that was not part of Jesus’ kingdom agenda. It wouldn’t be enough to simply sit back and not engage in overt acts of violence or rebellion because the leaders of Israel had already set the course for the nation. They were streaming through an iceberg field and had no intention of turning the other way and embracing God’s will.
In the same way, those who were crushed when the tower in the small section of Jerusalem known as Siloam (just South of the Temple) crashed upon them, were no worse than any other Israelite. They had not done anything to distinguish themselves as worthy above all others of God’s wrath. Pilate had the Galilean pilgrims killed but they were no different from any other Galilean pilgrims. The people who died under the falling rubble at Siloam were no different than any other citizens in Jerusalem. The point was that unless they repented from the path set for Israel by her leaders, then everyone was going to die in the same way. This was a dire warning about the fate of Jerusalem and her inhabitants unless they turned from their preconceived notions of how they wanted God to work and quickly followed Jesus’ path of what it really meant to be part of God’s family.
To make his point clear, Jesus told a parable using the familiar symbol of a fig tree growing in a vineyard. The fig tree and vineyard were common Old Testament images for the nation of Israel, but it seems rather likely that Jesus drew upon Micah 7 as the primary source for his imagery, considering not only the contexts of this passage and Micah 7, which has to do God looking for the fruit of covenant faithfulness (cf. Isa. 5:1-7) and finding none in Israel, as well as the fact that Jesus already strongly alluded to Micah 7 in Luke 12:49-53.
It is possible that the imagery of looking for fruitfulness for three years comes from Deuteronomy 14:28-29, according to commentator C.F. Evans, who believed that Luke would have seen that there should be special evidence of fruitfulness on the third year. It is doubtful that Luke was making a direct correlation to the traditional view that Jesus had three years of ministry, but rather saw the three years as a sufficient amount of time for the tree to bear fruit if it was ever going to do so.
The point of the parable, however, was that there was no fruitfulness as far as the fig tree was concerned. There was, in fact, no evidence that Israel was repenting of her wholesale rejection of Jesus’ kingdom announcement. It was time to cut down the tree. Yet, the man who was in the vineyard day-in and day-out, taking care of it, asked for just a little more time. Israel had been given more than enough time to bear fruit and deserved to be cut down, but Jesus hints, perhaps she would be given just a little more time to repent before being cut down completely. It gives the reader pause, though, to know that Jesus has already made clear that he is going to Jerusalem to die, so we are left to wonder about the connection between that fact and the impending fate of the city that is alluded to here. It also should cause us to stop and think about the sad fact that Israel did not repent. The nation did not stop its course of fruitlessness and rejection of the Messiah and would indeed feel the full brunt of the ax as the fig tree was cut down.
At the same time, passages like this always leave us wondering what we can take away from this for our own Christian communities right now. The principle is actually fairly clear. Jesus had laid out a plan of what it meant to follow him and be God’s people, a plan which relied on joining God’s family as defined by the Christ and taking part in his reconciling project throughout the whole world. In rejecting that plan for their own ideas, Israel found themselves outside of the purposes of God, outside of the family of God, and ignoring the dire warnings of what would happen if they put themselves in such a position. This should be just as clear a warning to us of the consequences of rejecting a similar call to be part of God’s people and partner with him in his great reconciliation project. If we reject God’s kingdom and go our own path we too will find the same judgment awaits us as everyone else. It is also a stern reminder that God will not wait forever for repentance. He is patient and loving but he is also just. We must be patient with those who have yet to accept Jesus’ family and constantly try to keep fertilizing it, while at the same time giving them the clear warning that the master may return at any moment to cut down the fruitless trees.
What does God want to do in your church family and your community right now? How does he want to use you and your entire church to go about that? Are you truly embracing his plan with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength or do you spend an awful lot of time taking care of your agenda? What would happen if you and those around you really grabbed hold of God’s dream and the project that he is up to in your community right now? How might you go about doing that today?